How Plaza Singapura survived tough retail market to turn 40

Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Long-time tenants at Plaza Singapura include Equip-Design & Supply (far left), which sells luxury locks, and optical retailer Paris Miki (left).
Long-time tenants at Plaza Singapura include Equip-Design & Supply (far left), which sells luxury locks, and optical retailer Paris Miki (left).
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura.
Hong Kong's one-Michelin-star restaurant Tim Ho Wan opened an outlet (above) at The Atrium@Orchard in April last year and draws queues for its dim sum. Groom Hsien Yong Seng (seventh from left) in a 1975 wedding picture taken outside Plaza Singapura. Some of the eateries (right) at the new wing boast spacious and airy set-ups.ST PHOTOS: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, EQUIP-DESIGN & SUPPLY PHOTO: COURTESY OF HSIEN YONG SEN

Plaza Singapura, which turns 40 this year, is still giving its competitors a run for their money

En route to the photo studio on his wedding day, Mr Hsien Yong Seng made a pit stop at Plaza Singapura Shopping Centre.

There, together with relatives who had flown in from around the world to celebrate his big day, Mr Hsien and his wife had shots taken outside the mall in full wedding gear, with the blockish building in the background.

It was 1975, just a year after the mall at the end of Orchard Road had opened to much fanfare. Singaporeans were enamoured with it and trips there were a big deal.

Mr Hsien, now 65 and a retired treasury officer for a finance company, recalls: "Plaza Singapura was on the way to the photo studio in Middle Road. It had a nice outdoor space and we liked the scenery, so we thought it was a good place to take a picture.

"Over the years, especially after my children were born, we often shopped at Yaohan there while my daughter had art classes at Yamaha. My friends would also send their children there, so we would meet while they were at class."

His two children are now in their 30s. He adds: "I remember the long queues for the 10-cent Anpan buns and sushi at Yaohan. Plaza Singapura became the place to go to if we needed anything such as gifts and new clothes."

The mall turns 40 this year and despite fierce competition from bigger and shinier shopping centres along Orchard Road, it continues to stand tall and appeal to shoppers of all ages.

It has also outlasted a number of its peers in town, such as Specialists' Shopping Centre and Scotts Shopping Centre, which have since bitten the dust.

Many shoppers like Mr Hsien fondly remember Plaza Singapura - it is affectionately called PS or Plaza Sing - for being one-of-a-kind when it opened in 1974. Then, it was one of the first shopping centres in Singapore and one of the largest at the time.

At the time, other malls along Orchard Road included home-grown department store Tangs, which opened in 1958. Down the road, Specialists' Shopping Centre, built in 1972, was home to the John Little department store. It has since been demolished and Orchard Gateway, which opened earlier this year, now stands in its place.

But unlike these malls, which had a single tenant or just a few tenants, Plaza Singapura changed the Orchard Road retail scene. Retail units and dining spots shared the 480,000 sq ft space and the mall pioneered the concept of anchor tenants.

It brought in Yaohan, a Japanese retail company to set up its first outlet in Singapore - its premises comprised a department store and supermarket. Elsewhere in the mall, Ponderosa restaurant, Doremi cafe and Times the Bookshop were favourite haunts of shoppers.

Ms Melissa Ang, general manager of Plaza Singapura, says: "DBS Land, the developer then, was able to see the trend ahead, that this is going to be the shopping centre prototype - having an anchor tenant, with speciality shops and restaurants... everything was under one roof and of such a large scale. It was a pull and revolutionised the way people shopped."

Another draw was the carpark that was linked to the mall at every floor - a novel concept at that time.

Besides Yaohan, other brands also set up shop in Singapore for the first time.

Optical retailer Paris Miki, one of the mall's oldest tenants, started out with a 1,000 sq ft store on the first floor. Singapore was the second location, after Paris, to have a store by the Japanese label.

Mr Denule Nai, 44, sales manager of Paris Miki, says: "We were next to Yaohan and we got the spillover crowd from there. Many Japanese tourists would also come to buy spectacles from us. Being here for so long, we have third- and fourth-generations of families coming to see us."

The store has since moved to a 732 sq ft unit on the third floor and has one employee who has worked there since 1979.

Plaza Singapura was also a go-to place for building and homeware items. But while many of these retailers such as lighting shop Million Electric have moved out, long-time tenant Equip-Design & Supply, which sells luxury locks on the fifth floor, has stayed put.

Second-generation owner Alvin Loh remembers the "kampung feel" of the mall. The 43-year-old, who runs the shop with his younger brother, says: "From the time I was eight, I would be in the store. All the retailers knew one another and I could just wander down the corridors, go into the next shop and the staff would give me a drink."

Part of the mall's charm through the years is that it has always been family- oriented, says Ms Ang. "We've established ourselves as that from Day One. It's not a luxury mall. But we've also brought in international labels which shoppers like, such as Uniqlo, and we're still a destination for necessities."

In Singapore where malls continue to sprout both in the suburbs and the city centre every year, Plaza Singapura is doing well - it had 2.5 million visitors every month last year.

Local research start-up Bimar, which tracks consumers' behaviour and footfall (the number of people entering a shop or shopping area at a given time) here, noted earlier this year that when compared with Ion Orchard, Takashimaya and Tangs, Plaza Singapura garnered 24 per cent of the visiting population among the four malls. It also estimated that the mall gets an hourly footfall of more than 20,000 people on a normal working day.

Bimar's chief operating officer Chiara Bertoldini says: "According to the results from our crowd remote monitoring system, Plaza Singapura - although older and away from the heart of Orchard Road - can easily compete with the popular neighbouring malls. The result is unsurprising, considering the mall's popularity among families, young adults and teenagers, and the fact it hosts a lot of international brands and famous dining places."

The mall's strong following has much to do with its continual upgrading. Its first major makeover came in 1997 and cost $85 million. It shut for 14 months to overhaul its facade and relooked its tenant mix.

While the mall looked new when it reopened, Ms Ang says the challenge was to bring back old customers who had gravitated towards other newer malls then. "The mall was closed for a long time, so we had to win back shoppers."

It was also a difficult time as Plaza Singapura's big draw, Yaohan, had pulled out in June 1997.

But it bounced back with new anchor tenants such as Japanese retailer Daimaru, which opened in 1998, and a 700-seat foodcourt and local furnishing giant Courts. A further boost came from Golden Village Entertainment, which took up much of the seventh floor with 10 screens in 1999, making it the second largest cinema for the chain, after its VivoCity outlet.

Echoing the sentiment among the other tenants, Golden Village's chief executive officer Clara Cheo says: "Plaza Singapura might be at the end of Orchard Road but it has a massive interchange train station. And there are many tertiary institutions around here. Nothing beats its location in drawing the crowd."

When the North East Line was built at the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, the mall had a small-scale renovation between 2002 and 2003 to improve connectivity between the mall and the station. New tenants were also brought in - almost half of the 230 stores were new.

Big-name anchor tenants included French supermarket giant Carrefour, Japanese electronics store Best Denki as well as the Robinsons Group's John Little and Marks & Spencer stores.

Almost a decade later, the mall underwent another facelift - this time for 21 months and at a cost of $150 million - and was extended to include space from its neighbour, The Atrium@Orchard. CapitaMall Trust, which owns Plaza Singapura, bought The Atrium@Orchard from the Government in 2008.

Aside from a facade change, 80 new shops were added, including several first-in-Singapore concepts such as Tim Ho Wan, the one-Michelin-star dim sum restaurant from Hong Kong. When the restaurant opened in April last year, it caused a frenzy and brought back long queues the mall is familiar with.

Mr Michael Chuang, general manager for business development and project management at PJ Partners, which runs Nana's Green Tea on the third floor of the new wing, says: "As a cafe, we need a lot of foot traffic and high turnover of customers. Plaza Singapura is a reputable mall which can draw crowds, unlike our previous outlet in JCube, where we were not getting our target customers."

But as the mall celebrates its milestone, associate professor of marketing education Seshan Ramaswami at Singapore Management University cautions that in a tough retail market, the mall cannot rely on its heritage alone.

"The challenge is to constantly reinvent itself, by staying relevant to its target market," he notes. "Malls in the heartland, such as nex in Serangoon Central, can potentially take away weekend crowds of families. So Plaza Singapura needs to consistently create events and atrium attractions, and partner entertainment providers to give people a reason to make that trip from the suburbs."

But for those who grew up with memories of the mall, Plaza Singapura will always hold a soft spot in their hearts.

Property agent Shahlan Saim, 45, used to work at Yamaha in 1991, where he sold musical instruments for four years. The highlight of his time there was meeting stars and musicians, including American rapper M.C. Hammer, who made a stopover in Singapore on the way to Brunei. He even snagged a photo with the star.

Mr Shahlan, who now visits the mall once a month, says: "When I started working there, it wasn't as crowded as in its early days. There were newer, cooler malls which came up, such as Far East Plaza. But I loved Plaza Singapura then because it was just fun working there. Even now, it's still my favourite mall."

natashaz@sph.com.sg

What are your memories of Plaza Singapura? E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg